TALLAHASSEE – With the close of 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA) are highlighting a number of policies and initiatives providing critical support to our state’s veterans, their families and survivors. FDVA is a nearly 1,500-member constitutionally chartered State Veterans’ Affairs department with a $171 million annual budget responsible for serving the nation’s third largest veteran population. Operating as the premier point of entry for Florida’s 1.5 million veterans, FDVA operates a network of nine state veterans’ homes and provides statewide outreach to connect veterans with their earned services, benefits and support. The agency’s veterans’ claims examiners play a major role in the direct infusion of more than $23.9 billion annually for veterans into Florida’s economy through federal compensation, education and pension benefits, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical services and military retired pay.
FDVA Executive Director James S. “Hammer” Hartsell was elected Senior Vice President of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs (NASDVA) during their 2022 annual conference and will assume the association’s presidency in 2023. NASDVA was founded in 1946 to bring together the state directors of veterans’ affairs from all 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia to promote and encourage communication, discussion, as well as action to effectively provide the best services and benefits for America’s more than 18 million veterans.
Investment in Veterans:
• Governor Ron DeSantis signed many veteran-friendly bills into law following the 2022 Florida Legislative Session.
• In 2022, FDVA Veterans’ Claims Examiners assisted more than 272,000 veterans in providing information and counsel on earned services, benefits and support. In addition, claims examiners have processed nearly 35,000 new claims on behalf of Florida veterans, and helped recover more than $194 million in retroactive benefits for Florida veterans and their families.
• In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, 30 FDVA Veterans’ Claims Examiners were deployed in October and November to Disaster Recovery Centers in hard-hit counties to connect more than 550 veterans and their families to earned services, benefits and support.
• FDVA launched a new Mobile Application in 2022 to help veterans and their families access benefit and employment information, and access the latest in veteran-related news. The App is available at https://app.floridavets.org/
• FDVA’s monthly Forward March Veterans’ Newsletter continues to grow subscribers. The email subscription-based newsletter has more than 41,000 subscribers and is available by visiting www.FloridaVets.org.
• FDVA printed and distributed 120,000 copies of the 2022 edition of the Florida Veterans’ Benefits Guide, courtesy of a grant from the Florida Veterans Foundation. An interactive online version is also available on the FDVA website at www.FloridaVets.org.
• Governor Ron DeSantis signed proclamations honoring Veterans this year, including for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, Vietnam War Veterans Day, Korean War Remembrance Day, the 10th anniversary of Florida Purple Heart Day, Florida Gold Star Family Day, Florida Veteran Suicide Prevention Month, POW/MIA Recognition Day in Florida, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day in Florida and Battle of the Bulge Day.
Under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis and First Lady Casey DeSantis, veterans’ mental health services continue to receive the attention they need.
• The Florida Governor’s Challenge is an interagency team supporting the mission to end veteran suicide through identifying veterans in need of support and promoting connectedness to tailored resources. To read more on the Governor’s Challenge, visit www.SaveFLVets.org.
• Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law in 2022 a pilot program which provides Veteran Suicide Prevention Training for all County Veteran Service Officers and Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Veterans’ Claims Examiners.
• First Lady Casey DeSantis is a champion of suicide prevention efforts through Florida’s Hope for Healing campaign, which combines the resources and efforts of public and private sectors to better serve those struggling with mental health and substance abuse.
• The Florida Veterans Support Line, 1-844-MyFLVet (693-5838) celebrated its eighth anniversary in 2022. The support line continued to provide confidential emotional support and connection to community resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The line, supported by FDVA, the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, and their suicide prevention partners, is available to all veterans in Florida.
• FDVA and The Fire Watch teamed up to provide the Watch Stander Program, which trains community members to learn warning signs of veterans in crisis and how to take action.
• The Florida Veterans’ Care Coordination Program was created in 2021 to provide and expand behavioral health care referral and care coordination services for veterans and their families and to partner with Florida 211 Network participants.
Career and Job Opportunities:
• The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) has worked with FDVA and First Lady Casey DeSantis to launch the Continue the Mission initiative, which recruits veterans and military spouses to be child protective investigators, mentors, and case managers. Since the launch of this program in June 2022, DCF has hosted dozens of job fairs for veterans, and has had more than 530 individuals apply to be a part of this program.
• Veterans Florida is a non-profit created by the State of Florida to promote Florida’s status as the nation’s most veteran-friendly state and help veterans and their families transition to civilian life with career and entrepreneurship opportunities through Florida’s Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS) Program.
• Veterans Florida also promotes SkillBridge, which connects active duty service members with Florida-based jobs in their last six months prior to discharge. Nearly 100 service members have completed their training and moved into careers in law enforcement, aerospace, manufacturing and other high-skilled industries.
• More than 300 participants attended the 2022 Veterans Florida Expo held June 17-18 in Orlando. It featured 28 speakers, 37 career fair employers, 15 exhibitors, and awarded $17,500 to veteran entrepreneurs in its largest-ever statewide Battle of the Pitches.
• The Veterans Florida Agriculture Program builds the next generation of agriculture leaders. Thirty-one veterans participated in the program in 2022, working alongside leading researchers at UF/IFAS research stations across Florida and receiving hands-on training to compete in Florida’s second largest industry.
• Paychecks for Patriots, coordinated by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the CareerSource Florida network, connects Veterans and military family members with hundreds of employers throughout the state through a series of career fairs. In addition, DEO administers the Florida Law Enforcement Recruitment Bonus Payment Program, which awards a $5,000 bonus to newly employed sworn law enforcement officers in the state. The program incentivizes a career in law enforcement, which provides an excellent opportunity for veterans to continue serving their communities as they support their families.
• The Governor announced that CareerSource Florida and state workforce agencies will dedicate $20 million in targeted workforce training supports for Florida’s veterans. This funding will focus on high demand industries including aviation, aerospace, and defense.
• The 78th Anniversary of the GI Bill was June 22. More than 60,000 Floridians used earned GI Bill benefits in fiscal 2021 to further their secondary education.
Veterans’ Housing Initiatives:
• To support frontline community workers, including veterans, Florida Housing’s Hometown Heroes Housing Program provides down payment and closing cost assistance to first-time, income-qualified homebuyers. Eligible frontline workers include active military, veterans, law enforcement officers, firefighters, educators and healthcare professionals.
• The Florida Hometown Heroes Loan Program also offers a lower first mortgage rate and additional special benefits to veterans and military personnel. To date, 581 active military, veterans or surviving spouses have utilized the Hometown Heroes program to purchase a home.
• Governor DeSantis also awarded $1.5 million to provide transitional housing for Floridians and veterans recovering from substance abuse through the Recovery Housing Program (RHP). Assistance available through this funding includes relocation payments, rental assistance, new construction, acquisition, and/or rehabilitation of housing facilities. For more information about the Recovery Housing Program, visit www.FloridaJobs.org/RHP.
State Veterans’ Homes:
• The FDVA budget signed into law by Governor DeSantis supports the daily operations of Florida’s eight state-run veterans’ nursing homes and one assisted living facility. The health care facilities provide essential services and care to eligible Veterans throughout the state. Included in the budget is $55 million to support the costs for the State Veterans’ Nursing Homes to ensure the provision of quality care for our Veterans.
• The budget also provides $5.6 million for salary incentives for direct care staff involved in the daily operations of FDVA’s veterans’ homes, reflecting Florida’s commitment to recruiting and retaining the highest quality caregivers for our residents.
• The 120-bed Ardie R. Copas State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port St. Lucie opened to residents in 2022.
• The 112-bed Alwyn C. Cashe State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Orlando opened to residents in 2022.
• Residents and staff of the Clifford C. Sims State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Panama City were safely evacuated and successfully recovered home as a result of rapidly approaching wildfires in Bay County during March 2022.
• Residents and staff of the Douglas T. Jacobson State Veterans’ Nursing Home in Port Charlotte safely sheltered in place during landfall of Hurricane Ian in late September 2022. First Lady DeSantis toured the facility on Oct. 3 while meeting with residents to ensure all needs were met and the home was in good condition. The veterans’ home has made structural hardening updates and installed a metal roof, which helped the facility sustain no damage from Hurricane Ian.
Women Veterans’ Outreach:
• The Fact-Finding Committee on Women Veteran Benefits and Communications presented its formal report to FDVA in 2022. The FDVA-appointed committee, led by retired Army Maj. Lorraine Holland, assessed the needs of Florida’s 164,000 women veterans to ensure the availability of earned veterans’ benefits, and that outreach is tailored correctly to provide the best results for them. A State Women Veterans Council under FDVA has been formed as a result of the report. You’ll find the report at https://www.floridavets.org/our-veterans/women-veterans/.
• FDVA State Women Veterans Coordinator Vanessa Thomas was elected vice president of the National Association of State Women Veterans Coordinators during their 2022 annual conference. The association advocates for women veterans, identifies barriers to successful transition of women veterans and military women to the civilian community, and recommends solutions through legislative, programmatic and outreach activities.
Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame:
• Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet voted unanimously to induct 10 Veterans into the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame. The Class of 2022 is the 10th class to enter the Hall of Fame. Inductees include: Mike Bousher, U.S. Army Veteran, Jeffrey Cathey, Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret), Anthony D’Aleo, U.S. Army Veteran, John Gionet, Sergeant Major, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret), Greg Holder, Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Ret), Don Lanman, U.S. Army Veteran, John Leslie, Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret), Gordon Lightfoot, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran, Maxine Reyes, Captain, U.S. Army (Ret), and Glenn Sutphin, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Ret).
GI LAW – Lawyers Assisting Warriors:
• Governor Ron DeSantis created the Governor’s Initiative on Lawyers Assisting Warriors (GI LAW) to recruit Florida’s leading law firms to provide pro bono, no cost legal services to Florida’s active duty service members. To date, eight statewide law firms have provided free legal representation to more than 198 service members.
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